Can a Guitar Have Too Much Sustain?

Being a guitar player is not a simple thing, there are always new challenges to face and problems that come up. 

For beginners, getting a proper sustain is a difficult task to master but what does it happen when this is quite the opposite?

Have you ever wondered if can a guitar have too much sustain? Perhaps you have, and you could have experienced such a situation. 

Although it may sound silly or even impossible is something that truly happens.

It is possible for a guitar to actually have too much sustain, it mostly occurs on acoustic ones. However, could also happen in electric pieces, and if it bothers you, there are some aspects you could consider to avoid this.

In this article, I will try to explain every aspect related to this topic, from the factors that make a guitar have too much sustain to how to reduce it. 

In the end, you will know everything needed about the guitar’s sustain.

What is sustain in a guitar?

Perhaps, you have heard thousands of times the term “sustain” when talking about musical instruments but, what exactly is it? 

Is it something related to volume or is it a completely different issue? 

In fact, volume and sustain share the same spectrum but they are two different things.

On one side, volume is a response to the guitar’s vibrations, in acoustic guitars, these vibrations come from the guitar’s top whereas in electric pieces pickups are also involved plus the source which provides the output. 

The sound travels through the top thus it must be flexible to vibrate freely but solid enough to maintain the instrument structure.

On the other side, the term sustain refers to the length of time a note lasts or how much time the sound resonates, volume and sustain are pretty alike but the latter has to do more with rigidity than flexibility. 

To hold a note sound, the vibration of the strings is driven into the guitar body which must be rigid enough to not vibrate along with the string and absorb the sound instead.

Natural sustain vs feedback sustain

As described above, natural sustain is a phenomenon related to the instrument itself. 

Although we explain that string vibrations and guitar structure are involved in this process, other aspects affect sustain as well.

Up to this point, we have a clear idea about what natural sustain refers to but we need to discuss what feedback sustain is related to. 

In order to explain it better, think of an electric guitar with an overdrive effect plugged into an amp.

After a certain time of holding a note, and in some physical spots concerning the amp, you could generate controlled feedback to the pitch of that note. 

This occurs because the sound produced by the amp is being taken by the pickups and sent it again to the equipment.

This is not something that is produced naturally so is what we call feedback sustain and although the pickups help the feedback loop, has little to do with the instrument. 

Actually, it’s more of an amp thing than the instrument’s natural behavior, because what also happens is that the amp is excessively loud in the room that the air shakes the strings, resulting in keeping the held note.

What are the main factors that determine the sustain of a guitar?

In general terms, several aspects determine and influence the sustain of a guitar, from tonewoods (maple, ash, alder, ebony, rosewood among others) to pickups and including construction, body type (solid, hollow, or semi-hollow), and strings thickness and tension. 

Although all of the previous factors matter, I will explain the most relevant ones.

Every guitar performs differently so there’s a belief that break angle affects a guitar’s sustain. 

Break angle refers to how steeply the strings drop after the nut bridge, the steeper the break angle the more sustain whereas the shallower break angle the less sustain.

In addition, saddle materials also affect the sustain, that’s because the different types of metals employed in their construction may be harder or softer. 

The hardness produced by the various materials could result in less or more sustain.

Regarding string tension, when you tune down a half or a whole step you are loosening your strings to achieve lower tones; as the strings have more freedom to vibrate, they provide higher sustain. 

Contrarily, when tuning up, your strings will be tighter, in that way, they produce fewer vibrations and, as result, they are more fond of providing lower sustain.

Some guitar players claim that guitars without neck pickups have a higher sustain. 

That happens because the pickup magnetic field sucks the string which doesn’t let it freely.

Moreover, the resonance mass is another important aspect when discussing guitar sustain. 

Solid wooden pieces provide a good quality sustain but the resonance capacity found in hollow and semi-hollow pieces is higher thus, more sustain. 

As regards the instrument itself, the points of contact at bridge and nut influence sustain plus are also affected by the action, if it is too high could ruin your sustain. 

In addition, no high or low spots on frets will avoid your strings to vibrate, which also means poor sustain.

Even though most of the reasons discussed have to do with the instrument’s construction, there are more issues that are intrinsically related to playing technique. 

Maybe, it might seem obvious but finger accuracy and string pressure play important roles when holding a note. 

Is there something such as having too much sustain?

Guitars do need sustain, there is more problem when lacking it than having it in higher quantities. 

Therefore, you cannot think of a thing like having too much sustain, maybe excessive feedback sustain could be harmful to your sound when it breaks out but if you keep it under control you will avoid such a situation.

Perhaps, if you are playing a musical genre such as surf rock, you will need to achieve a muted tone. 

In those specific situations, it could drive you crazy or be annoying but even so, you could tweak your technique to overcome it.

What can you do about a guitar having too much sustain?

The most common way to deal with this issue is to have your guitar serviced, you can mod your instrument in order to reduce sustain. 

A common mod would be swapping its bridge for one with a smaller surface area, such as those on Rickenbacker guitars, for instance.

Flatwound strings could also help you get a more muted sound.

In addition, the more tension you have, the less sustain you will get so, trying different string gauges could be a solution as well.

What is more, is commonly said that lighter bridge pins will help with this, you can get some of them and experiment. 

We have previously mentioned that hollow and semi-hollow guitars have a lot of sustain so, what you can do is get a solid body piece, or even, if you can afford it, you can modify your instrument’s body.

How to reduce the sustain on your guitar

When talking about sustain, the amp plays an important role plus effects also influence it. 

Turn the volume down and turn off effects, in that way you will clean your tone, you need to practice with the purest sound possible to build up your playing.

What some players do is weave a small piece of foam through the strings by the saddle, by doing that the sustain is moderately reduced. 

Following the same line, there is also something called guitar fump bridge-side dampeners, fret wraps, and mute pads which you can get in any musical store and will also do the job.

Another tip you can test is using different kinds of picks but I insist that working on your playing technique will be the best solution. 

Try to vary the pick attack and slightly lift your fretting fingers while changing between chords, pay attention to your playing style and improve it.

Can sustain make a difference in your playing?

Sustain does make the difference in your playing due to not only is the way your instrument responds to your playing but also shapes how you play. 

First learners tend to struggle with this issue because as they haven’t developed a solid technique, they find it truly tough.

When playing an instrument, the notes need to be held because they have to be listened to by the musician performing, their bandmates, and obviously the audience. 

Otherwise, your poor, dampened tone will only sound empty and second-rate.

Should you be worrying that much about sustain?

We have mentioned that is better to have sustain than lacking it so, in my view, you shouldn’t give it that much attention. 

There are many things you can do to control it and reduce it.

If you have problems dealing with excessive sustain you can always cut off notes by softening your grip on the fretboard

Remember that you can also mute notes while playing or when changing chords.